active faith

Trust and obey, says the grand old hymn.  A lovely pairing, and a very biblical one.  This pair captures the nice middle ground between two extreme ways of understanding Christian life and discipleship.

At one extreme (hint: extremes are bad… almost always), we have faith that is ‘aggressive’ in the sense that it is all about doing and obeying.  Trusting hardly gets any air time, if it features at all.  People who advocate this kind of faith usually are pushing back against believers who do nothing…

At the other extreme, we have faith that is ‘passive’ in the sense that it is all about knowing and trusting.  Obedience, if the topic comes up at all, is usually something that you are not to ‘do’ but happens automatically.  People who advocate this kind of faith are often pushing back against a ‘religious’ or ‘strict’ approach to faith, full of ‘dos’ and ‘donts’…

In the middle, we have a faith that is active or assertive.  Faith and belief are married to deeds and actions.  The two mutually reinforce one another.

Jesus loves to describe the kingdom life with vivid metaphors.  Sometimes we get too used to them, and other times we just read them wrong, in the light of our pre-existing frameworks.

One of these metaphors is the image of the fruit tree.  Good trees bear good fruit.  One extreme (‘aggressive’ faith) sees the fruit as being all our work, which legitimates our faith.  The other extreme (‘passive’ faith) sees the fruit as all God’s work, and not ours.  We don’t ‘produce’ the fruit, we just ‘bear’ it…

The ‘aggressive faith’ folk have to remember that Jesus’ metaphor assumes sunlight and water and that ‘God gives the increase’ wherever there is growth.  The ‘passive faith’ folk have to face the reality that the word behind ‘bear’ is the same word used throughout the New Testament for a lot of doing, working, etc.

The strange mystery is that as we trust and obey God, we are enabled to be and to do.  We hoist the sail, God’s spirit blows, the boat moves.


don’t hold on

In Genesis 2, the Lord gives instruction that the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ is not to be eaten from.  There is deep mystery and meaning in this command.  There seems to be some kind of boundary being established, and it seems to be a kind of protective boundary.  The serpent, in chapter 3, appears to distort and exaggerate this command, saying that it must not even be touched.  Perhaps it is some kind of common sense to put an additional layer of safety in place… but ultimately this approach backfires, temptation is yielded to, and this leads to a third development.  The Lord then specifies for the ‘tree of Life’ to not be eaten from.  This feels, to us, a strange command, as we assume that ‘to live forever’ is part of God’s plan and desire for humans.  But, again, there is deep mystery here, and whatever we make of these early chapters of Genesis, we can rightly take this boundary to be protective, at least for that season in human development.

Today is Resurrection Sunday, and in John’s narration of the post-resurrection events, there is one curious event that seems to echo, even if faintly, these mysterious boundaries in Genesis.  It is likely that John is deliberately echoing Genesis at points, for he opens with ‘In the beginning’.  Also, the language and imagery of fruit is very Johannine, famously with Jesus’ depiction of himself as the vine in chapter 15.  In chapter 20, Mary Magdalene finally recognizes Jesus as her beloved ‘Rabboni’, and is said to turn toward him.  She is met with the curious command not to ‘hold onto’ Jesus.  Many of us will be similarly puzzled by this, as we were with the banning from the tree of Life.  What could be more a beautiful, natural and fitting way for Mary to ‘abide’ in Jesus, than to embrace him in affectionate reverence in the bright light of resurrection morning?  No, says Jesus, or at least ‘not yet’.  Whether we understand it or not, and whether it makes sense to us or not, there is another boundary here, which must be taken to be protective.  Not that Jesus needs any protection from Mary, or even necessarily Mary from Jesus (!!!), but perhaps Mary from Mary.

Could it be that, even in the glorious glow of Easter morning, we still need boundaries to protect us from ourselves?  Perhaps we need to patiently progress toward the day, also in Johannine description (Revelation 22), where we will freely and fruitfully serve “God and the Lamb”, and respond freely and fully to the invitation to take of the “water of Life”.